The following Article comes from the Stanford Magazine, March 13, 2023
The benefits of meditation have long been touted: relief from stress and anxiety, and an increased ability to focus. Stanford looks at how meditation prompts our body and brain to make these adjustments.
What happens in the brain?
“Meditation is an intentional practice to cultivate awareness using concentration,” says Angela Lumba-Brown, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine and co-director of the Stanford Brain Performance Center. That concentration can affect neurotransmitters in our brains. Each of our billions of neurons can send 5 to 50 neurochemical signals per second, she says, allowing our brains to rapidly communicate with our body. Levels of dopamine (the neurotransmitter of pleasure), serotonin (the neurotransmitter of happiness), and GABA (the neurotransmitter of calmness) all rise in response to meditation. And in people who practice on a daily basis, they send signals more routinely. But it’s not one big, er, brain dump. “It’s more that there are overall changes in these combinations of neurotransmitters that reflect a more positive, relaxed, and even contented direction,” Lumba-Brown says.
Meditation can also alter electrical impulses, or brain waves. Faster brain waves are linked to high-energy intensity, stress, and hypervigilance, Lumba-Brown says. Meditation can prompt the brain to shift from those high-alert waves to the slower, more relaxed waves that are linked to states of calm, deep focus, and sleep.
Which areas of the brain are switched on and off during meditation?
Matt Dixon, a research scholar in Stanford’s psychology department, says meditation affects two main pathway changes in the brain. One is in the default mode network, the brain region involved in rumination and construction of thoughts about the past and future. (Hello, anxiety!) That network becomes less active in people who practice meditation. On the flip side, a part of the brain called the insula (responsible for body awareness, among other things) becomes more active in those who meditate, leading to increased awareness of their emotions and bodily sensations. “If you’re doing it right, you’re not thinking about yourself so much or judging yourself,” Dixon says. “You’re becoming more into the present moment.”